Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Lk 24:46-53
By + Cardinal George Pell
Archbishop of Sydney
12 May 2013
Today is unusual not merely because Ascension Thursday, forty days after the Lord’s resurrection, is celebrated on this Sunday before the feast of Pentecost, but also because it is the only occasion when we have two excerpts from Luke, from the Acts of the Apostles, which he also wrote and from his Gospel. We are all well aware that in this year the cycle of gospel readings is taken predominantly from Luke, although we have not had Lucan gospel texts for a few weeks.
Luke’s gospel is written in the best Greek in the New Testament according to the experts. Luke was a Gentile not a Jew, probably an early Christian convert and physician from Antioch, with Greek as his first language. Greek was then the common language all around the Eastern Mediterranean just as English is now used in Asia and Africa, where there are many local tongues. As well as giving us this information St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin in the fourth century also told us Luke was a follower of St. Paul, the great missionary apostle and companion on Paul’s journeys.
Legend describes Luke as a portrait painter, especially of Our Lady and the Christ Child. The portrait we know and venerate as Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which is found in the Redemptorist Church in Rome was one such ascribed to St. Luke in my youth in country Victoria. Alas, this painting comes from the 11th – 12th century and Our Lady is dressed as a Byzantine noblewoman from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire which continued until 1453 in Constantinople, about one thousand years after the Roman Empire collapsed in Western Europe.
This reference to Our Lady, reminds me to ask you all to pray for mothers on this Mothers’ Day. By any standards motherhood is one of the most important vocations, but it is not much discussed with our teenagers today. Sometimes we can be so busy preparing young people, boys and girls, for the work force that we don’t do enough to prepare them for marriage and their role as parents. Each of us should pray in gratitude for his own mother. Not even a good dad is as important as a good mother!
In today’s readings, as we have mentioned, we have two accounts of the Ascension, both written by Luke, with one taken from the conclusion of his gospel and the other from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, which tell the story of the early Church after Christ’s resurrection.
Naturally both accounts agree on the essentials of the story. Some have objected to the notion of Jesus disappearing into the sky, but it would have been incongruous for the Lord to return to the earth. Certainly he did not take off like some supersonic rocket! We now know that it is difficult to speak of “up” and “down” when talking about space. When I was a young priest in England the school kids would ask me why Australians do not fall off the planet as we live “down under”! Generally we speak of heaven in the sky and hell in the underworld.
The afterlife is a mystery, but Christ’s bodily departure reminds us that we believe in the resurrection of the body as well as the final judgement on the last day. We are not only members of the People of God but in some mystical way we belong to the Body of Christ. Despite all our sins and weaknesses we are divinized, made a bit like God’s only Son, especially in the next life.
The Greek philosopher Plato believed that the human intellect or soul was eternally related to the eternal principles of reason. This implied some sort of pre-existence and the survival of the individual soul after death. Christians do not believe in pre-existence, but do believe, on Christ’s word, that in the new heaven and earth we shall be in some real sense embodied spirits. We believe in the resurrection of the body on the last day, famously depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel where the pope is elected. At the ascension Christ foreshadowed this, by returning to heaven body and soul. We do not believe in reincarnation, where we might return in the next life as a higher or lower animal, depending on the quality of our life as humans.
Christ has gone ahead in victory not just as one more outstanding member of the Church triumphant, but as the Son who sits at God’s right hand, above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power and Domination (apparently different ranks of angels). He is the ruler of everything, the head of the Church which is His body and all things are under His feet. This is the same Christ who suffered, died and rose again.
When Paul wrote to the Christian community in Ephesus, a Roman Empire city where many buildings and the amphitheatre still survive, he urged God the father of glory to grant a spirit of wisdom and perception to them, so that the eyes of their minds might see the rich glories promised the saints and the wonderful nature of the hope towards which they are called.
May we all understand this, go deeper and not remain on the surface, so that we shall continue to answer the call of conversion to Jesus, the call of faith and understand the necessity of repentance for the forgiveness of our sins.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.